Property prices are going through the roof in what was known as Ville Blanche or White Town in the former French colony of Pondicherry.
Puducherry's Grand Canal, which spans the length of the Boulevard Town, in hindsight, was an inadvertent mistake made by ambitious French engineers. Meant to sanitise the town, the canal became central to its evolving landscape — a definite line demarcating the French quarters from the Tamil precincts. Today, the term ‘heritage architecture' is loosely presumed to apply only within the Boulevard Town, especially the French Precinct — making it exclusive, and in the last decade, massively expensive.
When Kanu Mistry bought a property there in 2003, the land was valued at Rs.1,250 a square foot. The hype was just setting in, then. Going by the general norm in Puducherry, a heritage property is valued for the land alone with the built-up area considered only if restored. At today's rates, it can cost approximately upwards of Rs.2 crore.
Attributing the increased interest in these property to the opening up of the Indian psyche, he says, “Indians had the money, had travelled and had found the love for exclusivity.”
But this mindset took a long time coming, he says, while listing the various insecurities that let French property lie dormant till the last decade. “Initially the French mansions remained unoccupied because the locals (Tamils) in Puducherry were highly territorial. When compared to their intimate homes, they considered these huge mansions to be unsafe, associated with power and also impractical to live in.”
“It is only after INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), and Ecole Francaise D' Extreme-Orient's (The French School of the Far-East) exhibition of heritage architecture in Puducherry in 1998, did funds for restoration start flowing. As the word spread, it got its identity as that little piece of France in South India,” he surmises. Much of this insecurity was driven out by the coming of money and change in attitudes.
“Most of the buyers are high net worth Indians, NRIs, followers of the Ashram and a few French expats. For buyers from the metros, these rates are very affordable. Many of them look at it as a retirement option,” says T. Annamalai, a promoter active in the French Town.
Two years ago, the rates were edging Rs.10,000 a sq. ft.; today they fetch you anywhere between Rs.15,000-18,000. And, the closer it is to the Ashram and the sea promenade, the higher the price, he adds.